By Dave Wieczorek
Elizabeth Smart’s words scorch the reader’s mind, the reader’s heart:
“I remember so many overwhelming feelings and emotions. Terror that is utterly indescribable, even to this day. Embarrassment and shame so deep, I felt as if my very worth had been tossed upon the ground. Despair. Starving hunger. Fatigue and thirst and a nakedness that bares one to the bones. Intruding hands. Pain and burning. The leering of his dark eyes. A deep longing for my family. A heartbreaking yearning to go home.”
That’s the emotional tone Elizabeth Smart sets in the opening pages of her memoir, My Story (St. Martin’s, 2013), the disturbing account of her unimaginable ordeal at the hands of an itinerant street preacher who kidnapped Smart at knife point in 2002, when she was 14, then tortured and sexually abused her for months.
Smart shared her life story when she spoke of “Overcoming Adversity” during her appearance March 25 as part of the 2015 Broward College Speaker Series, co-sponsored by City & Shore Magazine and presented at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. She founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation in 2011 and spends much of her time advocating for child-abduction victims and recovery programs.
Smart was snatched in her pajamas from a bedroom in her family’s Salt Lake City home on June 5, 2002, by Brian David Mitchell, who held a knife to her throat. “Move and I will kill you!” her captor hissed.
Mitchell treated Smart, a quiet, devout Mormon who played the harp and loved horses, as a sex object. Mitchell’s wife, Wanda Barzee, treated the terrified teenager as a slave. They denied her food and water for days at a time. Elizabeth lived in “nine months of hell” until rescued by police in a suburb of Salt Lake City on March 12, 2003, 18 miles from the Smart home. In 2011 Mitchell was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping. Barzee was given 15 years for her role in the kidnapping.
Smart says Mitchell believed that anything in the world was his for the taking, and that he was a man who never cared for anyone. She calls him a “manipulative, antisocial and narcissistic pedophile.”
During Mitchell’s trial, Smart testified: “I felt that because of what he had done to me, I was marked. I wasn’t the same. My personal value had dropped. I was nothing. Another person could never love me.”
She did find love, however, and in 2012 she married Matthew Gilmour, a native of Scotland, whom she met while both were serving as Mormon missionaries in France.
“I want people to know that I’m happy in my life right now,” says the 27-year-old Smart. “I also want to reach out to people who might not be in a good situation. Maybe they’re in a situation that was similar to the one that I was in.”
What has helped Smart move on from her suffering was advice from her mother.
“The morning after I was rescued,” Smart told Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, “my mom said to me, ‘Elizabeth, what this man has done to you, it’s terrible, there aren’t words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. But the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy, is to move forward with your life and to do exactly what you want to do.’ ”
Feeling sorry for herself and holding on to what’s happened, she told her daughter, would only allow “him more power and more control over your life, and he doesn’t deserve another second. So be happy.’
“I’m not perfect at following her advice,” Smart says, “but I do try to follow it every day.”
Tickets for the Broward College Speaker Series, presented at the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center by Hoffman’s Chocolates, a BBX Capital Company, are available through the AutoNation Box Office at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 954-462-0222, or visit BrowardCollegeSpeakerSeries.com. Next up in the series will be best-selling historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who will share her insights April 15 on the lives and politics of our country’s “large figures” – past and present – in “Leadership Lessons of History: Doris Kearns Goodwin on the American Presidents”